Should Porter Ranch and Flint Change Priorities?

Two unrelated incidents, both causing health hazards, have occurred in the United States recently. One is a gas leak in Porter Ranch, California and the other is lead poisoning in the water in Flint, Michigan. The serene, relatively well-off neighborhood of Porter Ranch woke up one day to find that a near- by gas storage facility was leaking methane gas. Some residents of Porter Ranch had to be evacuated and there is a significant ecological disaster comparable to the emissions from 6 coal power plants per day.

To date more than 80,000 metric tons of methane gas have leaked from a 7 inch hole which SoCal, the operator of the Aliso Canyon storage facility, claims will be repaired by the end of February. SoCal hired the services of Boots & Coots, considered to be world experts at managing and when necessary “killing” wells. Regulators are now asking that SoCal shut down the damaged well and establish a leak detection system to monitor not only the current leak, but possible future leaks.

Flint is one of Michigan’s poorest cities. A financial crisis caused the state to declare a financial emergency in Flint. One money saving measure was a decision to develop a new source of water from nearby Lake Huron instead of relying on water from the Detroit water system. It was estimated that the new infrastructure would be ready by 2016.

In the meantime, in 2013 a decision was made to treat water from the nearby Flint River until the new infrastructure was ready. The problem was that the pipes they relied on to supply water from the Flint River were lead pipes, some dating back to the 1950s.

To make matters worse, the data on the lead pipes was stored on 45,000 index cards, some more than a century old. Since June 2013, Flint received drinking water which was deemed un-usable water for machines, as it corrodes equipment, by a nearby General Motors plant. Flint water was reconnected to the Detroit water system only in October of 2015. In January 16th of this year, president Obama declared a federal emergency and provided funds of 5 million dollars for water and filters until the situation could be resolved.

The Flint situation is an example of bad decision making, but it also raises important questions about aging infrastructure. A system is only as strong as its weakest component, whether it’s a water source, a treatment plant, a reservoir or a pipe.

But while the specific details for the Porter Ranch and Flint cases are important and alarming for the residents in both municipalities, the focus should also be on all other existing water and gas supply systems throughout the globe. Water and energy infrastructures are the backbones of private and industrial consumption. Infrastructure is either maintained or may be de-commissioned when replaced by new infrastructure. The problem is that de-commissioning and replacing infrastructure costs money and often is deemed not worth the cost.

As in the Flint case, it can be tempting for economic reasons to re-use old infrastructure and stakeholders who could be impacted are not even aware that a decision is being made. The state of New York alone estimates that there are at least 70,000 old wells that have been drilled in NY since the 1800s, some currently in basements. It doesn’t mean that these old wells will ever pose any environmental or safety concern, but some might. On its own website, SoCal promotes the Aliso Canyon’s maintenance projects, stating that equipment dating back to the 1970s should be replaced with newer equipment. Yet, Aliso Canyon is just one out of 418 similar facilities in the United States alone.

The Flint and Porter Ranch cases demonstrate the decisions that companies have to make as to whether to invest in maintaining old infrastructures or to build new ones. Even when there are safety and maintenance reports, they are usually not conclusive. There is also something to be said about the “don’t fix it if it’s not broken” approach. An asbestos based water pipe is a good example. As long as the pipe is working, there is no public safety issue. However, dismantling the pipe could cause health and environmental issues. The public has been led to believe that natural gas is the safest, cleanest form of energy. However, the public is not aware that the age of storage facilities matters. In the book, Gas Migration, the authors address the issue of aging gas storage facilities as an issue that should be addressed. Following the Fukushima accident in Japan, the public questions the safety of nuclear and considers gas to be the safer option, but this does not take into account the amount of diligent maintenance needed to maintain an interconnected web of pipes, storage facilities and gas lines.

Building new infrastructure is costly and controlled tightly by the companies doing the work and the government that commissioned the work. Although there are regulations and standards for maintenance, how unambiguous are they? Municipalities, states, countries, private property owners, private companies and government regulators all may have conflicting interests and maintenance is a low priority in part because there is not a lot of money in a single maintenance project. Whereas, new projects, technology and trends are attractive and have higher public profiles.

Based on metrics like MTBF (Mean Time Between Failure), which means the average time from each failure in the system to another, and MTTR (Mean Time to Repair) which means the average time it takes to fix a failure, there is no exact data as to when the infrastructure will fail so it’s tempting to wait another year and then another and then another.

There is bad news for water infrastructure. If lead contamination could happen in the United States, it could happen anywhere. Since there is less money involved in water and less interest from private investors, monitoring is left to public health authorities.

As for the energy sector, there is good news and bad news. According to the IGU (International Gas Union) report, most of the underground gas storage facilities are either in the United States (120 bcm), Russia (60 bcm) or Ukraine (30 bcm). These countries can hopefully be relied upon on to maintain the infrastructure for economic reasons and due to safety concerns. The IGU report also shows a surge in the number of storage facilities in the 1950s-1970s. Some facilities even go back to the beginning of the 20th century, but the assumption is that these early facilities have been extensively maintained. The report also shows that the Russian company Gazprom is the largest operator of gas facilities in the world. As the storage facilities show a pattern of concentration by country and operator, they are easier to monitor.

Not dismissing new profitable and more advanced technological projects and infrastructure, one of the major concerns is not only water scarcity and available energy sources, but an aging, poorly maintained infrastructure that is de-prioritized until the next accident happens. When a new project is proposed, we should ask about the advantages it will afford the community and we should also find out what will be done with the old infrastructure to make sure it’s safe. We should always remain informed as to how well maintained the existing infrastructure is.